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I’ve spent a lot of time since 2009 advising clients on email strategy and implementation, but less on actual implementation.
I was starting to miss the fun of creating campaigns, hitting the send button and watching the results. That changed when I decided to launch a new UK crowdfunding startup, with some close friends.
As Head of Digital, I’ve had to get back into the detail of email marketing and think beyond the strategy. This blog shares my experience on what makes for good email marketing in terms of process and strategy components.
I hope you find it useful reading.
Simple sign-up process
Lots of data gives CRM teams more weapons to play with. However, requiring customers to submit lots of data simply to sign-up for an email, in my experience, kills your sign-up rate.
For example, if you’re a fashion retailer, why would I give you my date of birth just to get your newsletter?
It’s better to keep data entry requirements minimal and then use follow-up touch points to enrich the data. All you really need is the email address and the person’s name, or even just the email address.
I really like how Selfridges does this. The online form is simple and you get a nice follow-up email encouraging you to share more data in return for relevant emails.
There are two primary options on the website, both should run in tandem:
- Persistent sign-up box in the site wider navigation, where the email submission and conformation is done on the page using ajax.
- Email sign-up landing page that can be accessed via a site-wide navigation text link and is used as a content page to promote the benefits of the newsletter and provide a sign-up form.
Schuh is another example of a quick and easy two stage sign-up form. It’s done on the page and all you need to give is your email and select your interest area.
A recent #ecomchat on this topic revealed a divide between those who think a preference centre is essential and those who see it as a ‘nice-to-have’ but certainly not business critical.
A preference centre benefits you and your customers. Customers have a central data view where they can update their preferences at any time (assuming you make it visible on the website!) to ensure they only receive what they want.
As needs change over time the preference centre is flexible to allow these changes to be reflected in the opt-in permissions.
For your business, the preference centre can be presented on the website and integrated with the email service provider (ESP) via an API to ensure that the user record in the web database matches the user record in the ESP.
This synchronisation is really important to ensure you satisfy data protection requirements. It can help drive segmentation within your email data lists because you can build out the preference centre over time.
For example, we are building a preference centre based on two criteria:
- Communication channel – telling us how we can talk to customers, focused on email and SMS.
- Email type – telling us what types of email each customer is happy to receive, with the primary types being the content-led newsletter and sales-based project alerts.
Clear unsubscribe option
Make it easy for people to wave goodbye. Sounds crazy doesn’t it, making it easy to reduce your database size. However, not only is this a legal necessity but It’s also good customer service to be transparent about how people can update their preferences and opt-out.
If you have multiple email lists and different communication channels (email, post, SMS etc.), make sure you have a preference centre so the opt-out isn’t universal and blocks communication that the customer is still interested in.
A useful addition is to have a feedback form once the unsubscribe request has been processed to ask why people are unsubscribing. Below is an example from Oliver’s Travels.
What can you offer subscribers?
Generic blast campaigns are still sadly prevalent but it’s relatively easy to segment and tailor email content based on individual segments. If you don’t use segmentation, the end result is invariably poorly targeted content.
Below is an example of poor targeting from Key. It sent a generic Father’s Day promotion email offering a free apron for every online order.
Quite why a subscriber to a Shopfitting and storage email would be motivated by an apron for their Dad is beyond me.
The biggest challenge is to define how to cut your segments. Are you dividing the database based on user profile? Or interest? Or purchase history? Or a combination?
We have a two stage process starting with very simple segmentation to find out who wants to receive the newsletter and/or project alerts (when new projects go live on the website).
We want to separate those who are most interested in backing projects (funders) from those who want to stay in touch with what we’re doing (brand enthusiasts).
Stage two will build out the granularity of the list segments by enriching the user profile, capturing data on interest areas and audience type. Where we can tie a subscriber to a registered account on the website, we can go even further and analyse browsing and purchasing data to fine-tune the segmentation.
We’re using MailChimp and it’s a brilliant tool that on the surface feels lightweight thanks to its simple and intuitive UI but has a lot of excellent functionality under the hood, including a well designed set of APIs.
If you follow the advice above, you’ll capture an email address and not much more when people first sign-up. You have a new subscriber, so how can you learn more about them?
Data enrichment is the process of adding more customer level data to build a more detailed profile that helps you with your segmentation and campaign targeting.
A few obvious ways to do this:
- When a new subscriber signs up via the website, on the confirmation page give them an incentive to share more data. Selfridges uses this approach as well as the follow-up email.
- For transactional websites, use the order confirmation page to ask for more information (you’ll have their email address from the checkout and can store the data against this email, even if it’s not yet opted-in for marketing).
Types of email
A common mistake with email is to rely on the standard newsletter format as soon as someone subscribes. In my experience, this misses a trick because not everyone who signs-up understands your value proposition.
You need to put the effort in to engage with new subscribers and persuade them to take you seriously. Below is a structure that I’ve seen work well:
Multi-phase campaign for new subscribers that tells the brand story and promotes USPs. This starts with a general welcome email that encourages people to share more data to help with your segmentation.
This takes new subscribers and looks to move them along to openers, then clickers. For people who haven’t opened an email, you need to look at two things:
- Are the emails hitting the inbox? If not, can you clean the emails or do you have a problem with your sender reputation to fix?
- Test the subject line to try and increase the open rate – split out non-openers into a separate segment and then AB test the subject line like crazy.
Once people are in the ‘openers’ club, it’s time to focus on getting them to click. This involves testing different types of content and CTA (call to action). Don’t jump straight into a juicy offer as some may just not be ready yet to click, or haven’t seen content that excites them. You don’t want to give money away just because you don’t yet know enough about what floats their boat.
There is certainly a time and place for an offer to drive email conversion rates but the most valuable email customers are those who click and buy because they like what you email them.
This involves identifying inactive subscribers – you need to define the thresholds first so there are clear criteria for when a subscriber is inactive vs. just not currently responding to emails.
Once these criteria are met, this should trigger the purging of the email from the list into an archive list.
There’s no point continuing sending emails to uninterested people. Not only do you risk tarnishing the brand but there’s also a cost involved. As your list grows, you want to strip out ‘bad’ email addresses and focus on people who open and click.
But first make sure you’ve worked hard to reactivate people. Test subject lines to encourage them to open. Ask them why they’re not responding. Incentivise them with an offer as a last resort if that fits with your brand ethos.
Conversion & Retention program
This all about the conversion, whether you're ecommerce focused or lead generation.
Based on the data capture of which segment each customer belongs to, each campaign will have a tailored version for each segment (and not all campaigns will be sent to all data lists). You can use the same email template and change the content. You will need a default version that is sent if a customer isn’t assigned to a specific segment.
Testing & optimisation
It’s critical that you find ways to evolve your email program, learning from results and talking to your audience to encourage feedback.
A few pointers:
- Include a link in each email to a persistent feedback form – this should be focused on the email program, not general feedback e.g. “Tell us how we could improve our emails”.
- Make sure that every email campaign has a test – whether this is subject lines, content, day of send or landing page, never miss an opportunity to test.
- Consider using a testing tool like Optimizely to support AB & MVT testing of landing pages for email campaigns.
- Agree a structure for capturing test results and learning so it’s visible to everyone who needs to know.
- Use the lessons from tests! Don’t just think ‘well, wasn’t that interesting’, makes sure you do something positive to improve the next campaign.
Reporting & analysis
There are two key types of reporting to square away:
- Campaign reports
These relate to metrics from your ESP in terms of inbox delivery rate, open rate, click rate, click:open ratio, #unsubscribes etc.
- ROI reports
Revenue based metrics from your analytics tool (usually Google Analytics) including conversion rate, average order value and revenue.
You can go deeper with KPIs but these are the key ones to measure.
Agree a reporting structure, for example look at campaign reports 24 hours after the email is sent, then after three days, seven days and 14 days. This lets you learn the tail of the campaign, how long it takes for all activity to trickle through.
Analyse performance over time to pick out data trends and then act. For example, if your unsubscribe rate goes through the roof, work out why. Is it from new data you’ve added? Is it in reaction to a specific email? Is it from one particular email client like Gmail? Piece together the jigsaw and take actions when needed. Don’t just sit back and wait for them come to you.
There are too many useful articles on email marketing to share all of them here, so I’ve picked out three from some of my favourite writers/websites:
And here’s an aggregated list of email marketing blogs on Econsultancy – bumper reading pack!
What do you think?
Is there something missing that should be part of an email marketing program? Please share your comments and experience.